Case Study

Online Tutorials Grab the Attention of Philadelphia U

"As far as I'm concerned, if something is so complicated that you can't explain it in 10 seconds, then it's probably not worth knowing anyway." That 1995 remark from Calvin, the errant youngster in the immortal Calvin and Hobbes comic strip series, might well sum up the outlook of today's college student.

Short and to the point is the idea behind Atomic Learning, a company that offers Web-based software tutorials for some 100 applications commonly used in higher education, ranging from Blackboard and Desire2Learn, to Microsoft OneNote and Microsoft Project, to Adobe Dreamweaver. The tutorials require Apple QuickTime or Adobe Flash; closed captions are available for some. An annual subscription gives users access to all Mac and PC tutorials; Atomic Learning says it offers over 25,000 "software training movies," and adds 500 or more new tutorials every 45 days.

Each super-short tutorial ranges from less than 30 seconds to a few minutes, and features voice and on-screen explanations of specific software features. Users can run the product in question in one window, then open a browser-based Atomic Learning tutorial in another window.

According to Jeffrey C. Cepull, vice president for information resources and CIO at Philadelphia University, the university has been licensing Atomic Learning since late 2005. Philadelphia University students, faculty and IT staff use the tutorials in several ways. Some faculty integrate the product directly into classroom teaching by showing a specific tutorial in class, using a video projector connected to a laptop. Other instructors may supplement a lecture with one or more Atomic Learning lessons outside class. "They might say to students at the beginning of the semester: We're not going to spend any time on Adobe Illustrator, but you need to know everything up to this point… please go to the Atomic Learning site and do the first three tutorials," Cepull explains.

The university's technology help desk also uses the tutorials to augment its answers to callers. A first-response help desk technician might solve a caller's problem, then follow up by emailing a URL with one or more Atomic Learning tutorials that contain more information. "We push people to learn more; we don't just spoon-feed them a solution," Cepull says.

Students can use the tutorials on their own in a variety of ways. No user name or password is required to access the tutorials; the Atomic Learning license is through the campus domain name, so that anyone logged onto the university's domain is passed through to Atomic Learning's site. That means that at any time that they're logged on to the university system, including through a virtual private network (VPN), students can access tutorials. "That's pretty powerful for a student at two in the morning who may not be able to get the help they need from a help desk, faculty, or other students," Cepull says.

Cepull says he finds the Atomic Learning lessons to be short and well crafted—rare with online tutorials from competing companies, he says. "They've done something very different here. They really understand the attention span and the capacity for people to learn in small bites." The Atomic Design tutorials work, Cepull says, because the company seems to understand that an online tool can't be a simple regurgitation of material used in an instructor-led scenario.

"We're very happy. In my view, it's some of the best dollars we've spent," Cepull says. The last time he compared the product to others in its class, the cost was "10 percent of other, more complicated and more cumbersome solutions. They've got a really great product."

The one area where Cepull would like to see improvement from the company: built-in assessments with the tutorials. "If I get to the end of something,... there's nothing in the next step that says, 'let's test your knowledge.'" He says the company has told him they're working on that.

An individual subscription to Atomic Learning is $79.99 a year; campus licenses are available by contacting the company. Atomic Learning sells almost exclusively to the K-12 and higher education market; the company says that its customer base includes more than 4,000 schools, colleges and universities across the United States and in more than 30 countries worldwide.

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